This question is seeking to apply the Biblical text and is therefore off topic. This recently came up regarding the edits made to a question.

The primary issue to me is applying the text to ask about the (present) existence or non-existence of a metaphysical construct/place (Hades). That is off topic here. Asking what the original audience would have thought or trying to determine authorial intent would all be fine—but asking about whether or not Hades exists will derail this into theological and metaphysical discourse rather than textual study as defined in our scope.

It may be helpful to clarify some distinctions that can sometimes be subtle.

Linguistics Primer

There was some discussion about the edit to this post and it was suggested to instead ask,

What textual/contextual indications do we have to determine whether Hades is literal or figurative?

However, the argument was made that asking in this manner is intended "to ask for textual and contextual indications to help discern whether a word is literal or figurative." While the intent here is correct (to ask about the meaning of a word), the way the question is communicated is equally as important as the intention of the OP to ensure the question is properly understood by those desiring to answer it (and on topic).

The field of linguistics has shown us that words are symbols that stand for (or suggest) ideas, beliefs, actions, material entities, etc. If someone asks, "Is Hades real?" No one will interpret that as "Is the word itself real?" but will instead discuss the referent the word symbolizes.

Therefore asking about a word will almost always be understood as asking about what the word symbolizes. If this is not the OP's intention, this needs to be clearly communicated.

An example dialogue will be helpful. The dialogue is intentionally simplistic but illustrates the point well:

Customer: "Can I have fries with that?"

Cashier: "Sure, here is the word."

Customer: "No, I meant I actually want fries. To eat."

Cashier: "Oh sorry! I thought you were just asking about the word itself, not the actual little sticks of potatoes to which it refers!"

This is a ridiculous exchange which is highly unlikely to ever occur. However, being able to see a simple example may help shed light on more complex examples. If you're asking about a word but not about the referent to which it may refer, this requires careful communication.

What Can Be Asked

Let me close with some examples from my perspective:


  • "Is Hades literal or figurative in Luke 16:19-31?" — While this is based on a text, the question primarily asks a Truth question, i.e. whether or not the place/construct referred to as Hades is real or not? This type of question does not belong here as it seeks to apply the Biblical text.

  • "What textual or contextual indications and hermeneutic considerations would enable folks to discern whether Hades is literal or figurative in Luke 16:19-31?" — Adding lots of terminology doesn't really clarify anything here (just like asking for an 'exegetical interpretation' or a 'hermeneutics consideration' which are equally unclear). The main question is still about "whether Hades is literal or figurative."


  • "Did the author/interlocutor in Luke 16:19-31 intend for Hades to be understood literally or figuratively?" — The question is no longer about absolute Truth, but rather about authorial intent, which is a good fit here as it can be answered with historical and linguistic information.

  • "How would the original audience of Luke 16:19-31 have understood Hades, as a figurative construct of folklore or as a literal place?" — This is good because it focuses on the historical context of the passage and its meaning within that context. Linguistic/philological information about the idea of Hades itself would also be helpful in an answer to this question.

  • "What did the word Hades (Ἅιδης/ᾍδης) used in Luke 16:19-31 refer to in first-century Greek?" — This is a linguistic question related to a Biblical text and is thus a good fit here.

Is This Thinking Accurate?

Some quotes from other meta posts that should be taken into account:

  • "What makes us different from those sites is that here, our focus is primarily on the process of hermeneutical analysis, not the final output of that process. This distinction is significant and critical for users of this site to understand, but in practice the degrees of implementation are often subtle." (Source)
  • "This is a university, not a church/synagogue. We are interested in questions about Biblical texts and the process of translating and interpreting them, not absolute truth(s)." (Source)
  • "Religious, theological/doctrinal, ethical [&] liturgical aspects need to be handled as facets of the biblical texts studied by participants of BH.SE in historical, linguistic, and literary terms, and not as aspects of personal conviction, or the belief and praxis of historic and contemporary faith communities." (Source)

This discussion also raised another great question: "Can we define what it means to apply the text?"

I've made my stance and reasoning clear in the on/off topic commentary above. I'm interested in hearing other perspectives.

  • 1
    Perhaps I misunderstand the way Meta operates, but it seems, the way you worded this question forces any feedback from another perspective than your own to the comments as they would not answer your question. You did not present it as a proposal nor leave it open ended, ie, "Can we ask such questions as . . . "
    – user2027
    Jan 31, 2014 at 2:18
  • @Sarah meta is an odd beast. You are still free to post an answer for the sake of discussion/dissent/whatever.
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 2:48
  • Ah, ok, thanks.
    – user2027
    Jan 31, 2014 at 2:52
  • 1
    Could you tease out more the difference between your first off-topic example and your first on-topic example? I don't understand why one's reading of a text is a 'T' Truth while one's reading of an author's intended meaning in a text is a 't' truth. Why do we have more access to the author's intended meaning than we do the meaning?
    – Soldarnal
    Jan 31, 2014 at 2:57
  • 2
    (Of course, a whole load of epistemological questions come into play here, such as whether the author's intended meaning has anything to do with meaning, or whether meaning means the original or ideal reader's reading, etc... It just seems weird to front load epistemological concerns onto a question. How can I even arrive at an author's intended meaning without first discerning the capital T meaning of all kinds of other texts including presumably those which the author had written.)
    – Soldarnal
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:02
  • @Soldarnal I am basing that off of this meta post, this one, and this one
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:03
  • On-topic: "Does Hebrews 6:4-6 imply that we can lose our salvation?" - How is this any different from "Does Luke 16:9-31 imply that Hades is a literal place?" and how is that question different from your first off-topic example?
    – Soldarnal
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:05
  • @Soldarnal see my reply to that post :)
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:05
  • @Dan Yeah, I know you critiqued the "we" there. So if that whole post is self-contradictory, how do we apply it here to this question?
    – Soldarnal
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:07
  • @Soldarnal note that most of of the moderation team disagreed with me in the comments. I intentionally wrote this post to draw community feedback. I do hope you'll offer an alternate perspective. I think we've got some conflicting guidelines and this post will expose some of this and hopefully begin some good discussion - even if I get highly DV'd in the process (meta for the win!). I'm glad to run with whatever the community decides.
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:09
  • @Soldarnal good question
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:11
  • @Dan Thanks, I'll see if I can find the time to write something up. I do notice, though, that at least Caleb's response to your critique was to liberalize what we're willing to accept - i.e. "So what if it has an assumption in it that some might object to? We still get the gist of what is being asked and can respond to bad assumptions in answers."
    – Soldarnal
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:13
  • @Soldarnal I added a new section to the end
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:25
  • @Soldarnal I agree, "I [also] don't understand why one's reading of a text is a 'T' Truth while one's reading of an author's intended meaning in a text is a 't' truth". Moreover I don't think there is a need to impose some sort of pseudo-neutral language even if the difference was obvious and I've answered to that effect (but please don't let that discourage you from adding your thoughts). Jan 31, 2014 at 9:22
  • @GoneQuiet There must be some confusion here, because your comment speaks right past me. My understanding of Dan's post would mean that "analysis of things written" is "Truth". So your replacing that in your comment, it essentially says, "An author's intended meaning can come from Truth and can be confirmed, whereas Truth is not verifiable." I know that's not what you're intending to say, so you must have misunderstood me and I probably have misunderstood Dan (indeed, I began this whole thing asking for clarification).
    – Soldarnal
    Feb 1, 2014 at 6:47

2 Answers 2


When I read the question here (even in the original form) it seemed to me that the poster had in mind recent arguments along these sort of lines: "The purpose of this parable isn't to address the nature of the afterlife but to make a statement about a disciple's relationship to money and the poor. Therefore we can't learn anything about Luke's (or Jesus') view of Hades and the afterlife from this story." His question seemed to be probing for an hermeneutical answer to what he saw as an obvious (probably "plain reading") rebuttal to this argument.

I agree that the way the question was originally posed, it needed to be edited; however, my concern with your post here is that the examples you give of off-topic questions do not ring true to my idea of this site's definition. The rest of this post explores that.

With the above mind let me begin by saying that I consider the question "Is Hades literal or figurative in Luke 16:19-31?" to be equivalent in form to a question like this:

  • "Is the moon turning to blood literal or figurative in Joel 2:31?"

Or in a completely different literary-critical context:

  • "Is Narnia a real place in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? Or is it something Lucy dreamed?"

These are questions of literary criticism. They are searching for the meaning of a specified text. Whereas I would consider the question, "Is Hades a literal place?" to be a completely different form of question. That would be a question of systematic theology and therefore off-topic here.

Your post seems to indicate that the question would be better framed (and on-topic) if it searched for the author's intent or the original audience's understanding. I disagree.

Consider these three forms of the question:

  • "Did the author/interlocutor in Luke 16:19-31 intend for Hades to be understood literally or figuratively?

  • "How would the original audience of Luke 16:19-31 have understood Hades: as a figurative construct of folklore or as a literal place?

  • "Is Hades literal or figurative in Luke 16:19-31?"

They are all basically getting at the same thing. They all want to know about the meaning of Hades in this particular text. The difference is that the latter question avoids front-loading an epistemology and therefore allows for a wider range of responses.

If someone feels that meaning is located in an author's intent, they are free to answer just as if the question asked about the author's intent. If someone else believes that the author is lost to us and the only source of meaning that remains now is the text itself, they can answer from that perspective. Or if another person believes that a text has no meaning apart from an interpretive community (say the original receiving culture) they are free to answer from that perspective as well. Same if someone believes the locus of meaning is found in the Ideal Reader. Etc...

The former two question-forms, however, front-load epistemology and limit responses to those answers that share a philosophy of meaning and knowledge.

  • 3
    I just upvoted and accepted this as the correct answer. You hit the nail on the head: 'front-loading epistemology.' My blind spot here was imposing an empiricist epistemology (i.e. we can't empirically prove or disprove a metaphysical construct, so asking about it should be off topic). This was wrong of me. Thank you for making it clear.
    – Dan
    Feb 1, 2014 at 8:17

Can we ask whether Hades is literal or figurative?

We can, if (and only if) such a question arises naturally from a specific quoted text. In some cases this question would/could be read as "Does X imply that Hades is literal/figurative in passage Y" or something like that, but there is no reason to impose that sort of deliberately "is this really true" language on questions.

A majority of users of the site will be here with the assumption that the text is True (with a capital T). That doesn't mean it is, or that the contributions of those who participate without those presuppositions are in any way inferior. What it does mean is that the context of the site matters as an aid to communication. These questions are understood (because of the context) and they can result in excellent answers just as much as those couched in pseudo-neutral language, and this is what matters.

  • 1
    just so we're clear, did you see the original version of the question? The issue here is not pseudo-neutrality (nor was I trying to impose that), but rather not asking a theological question that applies the text. I think you may have confused my concerns here, PN plays no role. Not applying the text is the main issue. But even so, I appreciate this response, I simply don't think the question arose naturally from the text based on the initial version of the question.
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 13:48
  • 2
    In other words, to quote your recent meta post, I felt the question "merely quotes a convenient text in lip-service to the guidelines and focuses on an 'idea' instead." My goal was to respect the OP's voice and intent and get as close as possible to that based on the initial question and the followup edits by the OP. I felt my edit did that.
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 13:51
  • 1
    I agree completely about that particular question, but you've gone way broader than that with your meta question here and that is what I'm attempting to answer. Jan 31, 2014 at 15:44
  • 1
    @Dan, most of the discussion behind this meta post is in regard to yours and my conversation that was devoid of these underlying motivations. Our discussion was not over the question, "is hades literal or figurative" but over the question, "What indications do we have in the text or context for determining if it is literal or figurative?"--which seems to me a hermeneutic approach.
    – user2027
    Jan 31, 2014 at 16:23
  • 2
    @Sarah I'm thinking some miscommunication was occurring in both directions
    – Dan
    Jan 31, 2014 at 17:08

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